Sara SulerisMeatless Days Submitted to: Dr. Qabil Khan Presented by; Ms. Fatima Abdul Jabbar
Sara Suleris Meatless Days -- Novel or Autobiography?Suleri herself does not term Meatless Days as an autobiography, but herpublisher markets it as one.Daniel Wolfe wrote in The Book Review that "the writing is beautifullyconstructed and yet a little cold; Sara Suleri expertly paces out the boundaries ofher subject without giving the reader the pleasure of getting inside." Suleri wouldrespond to it that the novel is not about getting inside but is about showing whathappened, without explanation, with "no introductions" (Interview, December1990).To be sure, she acknowledges that genre of autobiography, by its very definition,engenders a form of self-censorship because it is ones own choice what toinclude and what to leave out of the text. However, she adds, "Forgetting is justabout as important as what you remember." At the same time, she does notbelieve in authorial control, saying that "a narrative should shape itself." Whenshe writes, "a lot of it is being dictated by what is down there on the page; what Iremembered and forgot was beyond my control." Perhaps for this reason Sulerisprose is peppered with the phrase "of course," as in the opening sentence citedabove: "Leaving Pakistan, was, of course, tantamount to giving up the companyof women."Suleri does not need to make many if any revisions to her work; her first draftusually is her last.
The Selective Autobiographer in Meatless DaysSarah Suleris Meatless Days tackles an ambitious number of topics, rangingfrom gender matters in Pakistan to the history and politics of the country, allwithin the framework of the authors personal vignettes of her own life. Thebooks scope is daunting, but Suleri lets us know throughout that she is not tellingus the whole story. Unlike many travel writers who try to conceal their selectivity,Suleri is not afraid to alert the reader to the fact that many important events in herlife have been intentionally left out of the book. For example, she informs us inparenthesis that she will not write about her sisters death: "For in this story, Ifatwill not die before our eyes”(103-4).Her circuitous (s r-ky -t s). writing style, her habit of following the tangents of herown thought associations rather than a clear narrative logic, make it evident thatthis is not a self-contained or conclusive story, but one that will leave manyunanswered questions and hidden secrets. In the following passage, Suleridescribes her own reluctance at times to reach into her past to retrieveinformation that might be germane to the topic at hand. By admitting to thisconscious aversion to bring back certain memories, Suleri is distinctly outliningthe terms of her writing, a writing that will produce a story both enormouslyselective, and necessarily incomplete.But to travel back thus far is too enfeebling, too bone-wearying a business for myimagination. It is similar to my new reluctance to visit old Muslim tombs andcontemplate again what I know Ill find, that inlay of marble on the walls with theircurious flat-faced flowers, so dainty and scornful of their own decoration. Andthen the dead center of the grave can sit so heavily sometimes, surrounded as itis with tiny writing, words like capillaries to tighten in the head, as you read roundand round with them all ninety-nine of Allahs appellations. O light, O clarity, Oradiance, you read, until suddenly sequence becomes a vertiginous thing, andyour brain is momentarily short of blood or breath. I used to enjoy thespaciousness of those places, the shoes-off of it, which put coolness at my feet.Now, I am not sure I would stop to consult those images, even by accident, in apassing book. In this passage, Suleri explicitly defines the limitations of her willingness to probeher own past.Suleri often makes use of extended, detailed metaphors to explain abstractconcepts, metaphors that often require a great deal of mental acrobatics tocomprehend fully. In this passage, she compares bringing back old memories towalking among Muslim tombs and reading the minute engravings upon them.
The allusion to the writing on the Muslim tombs draws attention to the status ofSuleris own writing, especially when she claims that she would "not stop toconsult those images, even by accident, in a passing book." this meant to beironic that how does the act of reading the inscriptions on the tombs, describedas "vertiginous," relate to our own reading of Suleris book.Post-Colonialism in Meatless DaysIn Meatless Days, post-colonialism is used, like the English language itself, self-consciously. Post-colonialism and English have become not just historical links,but tools used by the authors to communicate their unique, non-Western visionsof life. Discussion of post-colonialism in this novel illustrates the confrontations oftwo worlds, Western and colonized, but this conflict is not bemoaned or decried.In fact, post-colonial rhetoric, metaphors, and imagery have been appropriated init, as it has the very use of English. Meatless Days deliver a forceful image of aunique culture that has collided with Western tradition in no uncertain way. Workssuch as this can illustrate the effect the fermenting residue of colonial power willultimately have on nations confronting the dual identities of indigenous andimposed culture.Meatless Days, colored by the effects of colonialism, provides a unique visionthat is not explicitly post-colonial in nature. Meatless Days treats multiple themes(gender and sibling relations, political strife, religion, etc.), but above all it is apersonal novel, a celebration and remembrance of her English mother. Incommunicating her personal vision, Suleri necessarily writes about colonialism,for she is a Pakistani. However, as a celebration of her mother, post-colonialismis conceptualized as a communicating tool and metaphor. She asks, "How can Ibring them together in a room, that most reticent woman and that mostdemanding man?... Papas powerful discourse would surround her night and day"(p. 57).Post-colonial rhetoric aids her in discussing her mothers relation to Pakistan andherself.
Public and Private History in Sara Suleris MeatlessDaysSuleri constantly reminds the reader that she is writing a public history. Even thedeath of her sister Ifat connects to chaotic politics in Pakistan, for her family fearsIfat was murdered as a result of her fathers political leanings. The "alternativehistory" that Suleri calls Meatless Days is an attempt to deal with private historyin a public sphere, setting the two "in dialogue." According to Suleri, she tried tocreate "a new kind of historical writing, whereby I give no introductionswhatsoever. I use the names, the places, but I wont stop to describe them"(Interview, December 1990). In contrast to other third world histories, which shecriticizes as too "explanatory," Meatless Days simply presents Pakistan as itappeared to her. Using names and places without much definition, description, orexplanation was her "attempt to make them register as immediately to the readeras it would to me."Some might argue with her assertion, however, that she does not interpret. TheNew York Times Book Review claimed, for example, that Suleri takes "one stepback for analysis with every two it takes toward description." Indeed, someamount of reflection and interpretation is to be expected when one writes fromthe present looking back on the past. At one point she writes as she recounts amemory in the book, "Could that be it’s?" (p. 134) Here she is wondering, as shereflects back. Indeed, Suleri readily admits, "How does one maintain a sense ofprivacy when you construct a text like this?" and she acknowledges, "Im sure Idid reveal a lot" and that Meatless Days is "a very private book" (Interview,December 1990).Suleri, like Anglo-Pakistani author Salman Rushdie, weaves her own personalhistory into that of Pakistan because the two entities are, as she says,"inextricably connected to one another." Suleri set out to write a historical novel,but one that is not based solely on facts and figures but rather is based on thefacts in interconnected public and private histories. The deeply intimate aspect ofthe work, then, is not subjugated to the history of Pakistan but, combined with herremarkable use of syntax and diction, works instead to complement and redefinethe country itself.
"I" Versus "They": The Textual and Communal Self inSara Suleris Meatless DaysAlthough Meatless Days is more explicitly personal than Joan Didions TheWhite Album or Slouching Towards Bethlehem, it nevertheless belies a cleancategorization as autobiography. Suleri, links her personal story to the narrativeof her culture. She conflates her internal landscape with the external landscapeso that what is personal is never simply personal -- it is part of a larger question,a more historical assertion. In turn, Suleri begins to "lose the sense of thedifferentiated identity of history and [her]self" (14). Her mind becomes a"metropolis" (74) "a legislated thing" (87).Suleri struggles with a feeling of national displacement: her motherland isPakistan, and yet her own mother -- White, Welsh, representative of the colonizer-- can barely speak the "mother tongue." She is a woman from the third-world,and yet, as she puts it, "There are no women in the third-world" (20), "Pakistan isa place where the concept of woman was not really part of an availablevocabulary". By rooting her self in language, Suleri addresses her postcolonialidentity. She deals with the "the unpronouncability of [her] life" (138) by becoming"engulfed by grammar" (155), by "living in plot" (154).The manner in which Suleri constructs the identity of her family and friends,sheds light on the way in which she constructs her own identity, in discussingthem, Suleri uses the same techniques as in discussing herself: she fusessomatic discourse with textual discourse. The sister who was once "a house Irented" (4) becomes after her death "the news" (68), and later, a "municipality"(104). Her mother, who "seemed to live increasingly outside the limits of herbody" (156), becomes "the land [her father] had helped to make" (140) and later,"the past [Pakistan] sought to forget" (164). Her face is described as "wearing likethe binding of a book" (151). Even her friend, Muskatori, is represented as such aconvincing piece of "land" that, as Suleri declares, "they could build an airport on[her]" (70). Suleri refers to her own "schizoid trick" (personality disorder) ofdisconnecting the syntax of "life and body" (68) and, again and again, we see thetrick, or technique, in action. The book, which is self-consciously intertextual andacademic, turns everything in its wake into a construction of language, a piece oftext. The body becomes a narrative device, a metaphor for -- but also a way ofdealing with -- its fragmented surroundings.
When Suleri leaves Pakistan, she remarks that she "was not a nation anymore"(123). More than a denial of physicality, the statement contains an explicitcorrelation between her self and her narrative subject. She abstracts history --nationhood -- into her body, and then reads her body for historical clues. Atvarious points in the book, Suleri describes herself as a "landscape" (87), an"otherness machine" (105), and a "state" (127). In one particularscene, Suleriand Shahid swim together and get bitten by fireflies. Suleri interprets the bites as"tiny writing on [her] skin" (108). When Shahid attempts to apologize, Suleri tellshim it doesnt matter: "It never had any plot to it anyway" (108). In this scene,Suleri, like Didion, dramatically broadens the personal and physical. She turnsthis scene of physical play into a scene of textual play. She interprets theblemishes on her body as metaphors for the place she holds in the community:she is written upon, or, colonized.Throughout Meatless Days , food functions as a link between body and nation.In Meatless Days , this logic holds: through food -- what the body consumes --dramas of national identity play out. In the second chapter, Suleri writes that"Food certainly gave us a way not simply of ordering a week or a day but of livinginside history, measuring everything we remembered against a chronology ofcooks. Just as Papa had his own yardstick -- a world he loved -- with which tomeasure history and would talk about the Ayub era, or the second martial law, orthe Bhutto regime, so my sisters and I would place ourselves in time byremembering and naming cooks" (34). Whereas her father measures history bykeeping track of male heads of state, Suleri measures history by keeping track ofwhat enters her body. The passage makes explicit not only the connectionbetween body and history, but it reveals a gendered dichotomy: the malesparticipate directly in history; the women, on the other hand, exist only inmetaphorical relation to it. They keep track of history by what they consume, bywhat enters and fills their bodies. This blurry relation between body andnation/language, is one that structures the novel.
A Method to Her Madness: The Style of Sara SuleriSara Suleris Meatless Days is an incredible literary work. Part memoirist, partsage writer, Suleri shows us the wonder and the anguish of her childhood andsurrounds us with the bold colors and sundry sounds of a volatile postcolonialPakistan. Her intensely original style and flair for description leave the readerwith the sense of having read a complete and utterly true story. Each chapter isbrimming with memories from her past and present, interwoven with dialogue,thought, and breathtaking description. The book, which is written in a free flowingform, resembles in many ways the way a mind thinks: constantly drawing upondifferent musings in order to come a final conclusion.The most striking aspects of Meatless Days are how credible the story feels andthe uniqueness of Suleris personal ethos. Suleri, who appears to bar nothingfrom the reader, presents herself as a warm and trusted interpreter. She unlikeany other writer is credible, unfaltering and her personal ethos is strikingly welldefined.Perhaps the most expedient method by which an author can create credibility isto prove that she knows more about a topic than the reader does; more intricatedetails; more complicated names and histories. Including exhaustive detail abouta topic proves to us that our author was truly a part of the event, or that shestudied the issue in great depth, either outcome solidifying our faith in hercredibility. Suleri, McPhee and Didion all use this method in their work.Throughout Meatless Days, Suleri intermittently updates us about the changingpolitical situation in Pakistan, each time mentioning exact dates, and numerousnames which have not made the evening news for many decades:How different Pakistan would be today if Ayub had held elections at that time, in1968, instead of holding on until the end and then handing military power over to-of all people! -- Yahya . . . If Ayub had held elections there might still have been adeathly power struggle between Bhutto and Mujib: Mujib, the elected leader ofEast Pakistan; Bhutto, of West Pakistan. 
The detailed descriptions, facts, and citations that an author puts in a book helpto build her credibility, yet strangely, what the author leaves out can be just asimportant. Although Meatless Days recounts her own thoughts and history,Suleri admits that there are aspects of her life in Pakistan that she will never fullycomprehend and thus can not explain to us. When writing about her brother,Shahid in the section entitled "The Right Path; Or, They Took the Wrong Road,"she confesses her imprecise understanding of her brother: "We had alwaysthought of him, having as he did, the greater mobility of the male, as the mostPakistani of us: it never crossed my mind that he would choose to stay away orchoose a life that would not allow him to return" (101). Though she confessesthat she does not have a full knowledge of the topic on which she writes, wecontinue to value Suleris interpretation. Her disclosure of her lack of certainunderstanding, in fact adds to her credibility. Nonfiction pieces are meant to beloyal to actuality and, as fellow human beings, we understand that when one iswriting about certain significance or the inspiration of another it is impossible topossess complete understanding. Thus, admitting a lack of expertise in certainareas helps to confirm the actuality of the story.What authors leave out of their stories is just as important as what they leave in.It helps to build credibility when an author admits to us that she will not tell usabout something because her lack of understanding will not allow her, but it isalso effective when an author tells us that there are some topics about which shechooses not indulge us. Scattered throughout Meatless Days are mentions of awoman named Dale. It is apparent that Suleri cherishes her, yet she neverdivulges where they met or even the nature of their relationship. The modestamount of information about Dale is a clear choice made by Suleri, who evenwrites in the closing pages of her book: "I will not mention Dale at any length,although great length occurs to me (be distracted, elsewhere, Dale, as you readthrough this shortest sentence)" (176). This line adds further to the mystery ofDale and to our frustration about our lack of knowledge. But Suleris refusal tobestow upon us her entire story creates credibility. Her story is a personal one.Thus, it is expected that there are certain people and memories from her pastthat she would want to keep for herself. Although we may be frustrated andcurious, we expect that if her story is in fact credible she, like the rest of us, holdscertain memories sacred and will shield them from the world.
The powerful and effective nonfiction writer like Suleri is a trusted interpreter ofevents. The greater the displays of knowledge, prowess in written word, andalluring personal style, the more effectual the author is as a trusted interpreter,yet she must make heed not to inject her writing with too much of her ownopinion and judgments.Suleris seemingly emotionless and judgment-free writing style can at times takereaders by surprise because her writing is so extremely personal. Her writingabout her fathers sudden divorce from his first wife, Baji, after having fallen inlove with her mother, is completely free from any judgment of her fathersinsensitive action toward his daughter Nuz:Mamma at twenty-five must have been a talking thing-but I would hardly havethought that sufficient for him to pick up his life with Baji and just put it in hispocket. Oh, knowing his makeup I have no doubt he sang with pain, but he wentthrough with it anyway. The divorce was conducted by mail, and in Karachi Nuzat nine was told that her grandparents were her parents, that Baji was her sister.Suleri was wise in omitting many of her own judgments out of Meatless Days.The book is already charged with her very personal and very painful stories.Thus if she had included more of her own judgments and emotions, her credibilitywould have been threatened, and the book would be at risk for appearing tooslanted a view.In brilliant displays of her writing expertise, Suleri, like Didion, often uses othermeans then direct statement to convey her emotions or opinions. Much of theuniqueness of her style comes from her ability to substitute other images asmetaphors for her emotion. In the chapter "Goodbye to the Greatness of Tom,"Suleri describes her relationship and its end with a man named Tom by piecingtogether images of their time together, thoughts about being alone, and scraps ofconversations with her sisters. At the conclusion of the chapter when shedescribes Toms final words to her, she does not write about her own sadnessbut instead lets her interpretation of his words portray the emotion for her:In the closing words of the chapter, Suleri successfully uses the image of thewind whipping through an empty cave to portray her sadness. Further, hercertainty that she would hear Toms name in the wind clearly conveys that shewas affected by the ending of their relationship. Suleris subtle yet stirring mannerof conveying her emotions is unparalleled. This ability enables her to weave herown personality throughout her writing while still maintaining her credibility.
Just as central to the effectiveness of a piece as an authors credibility is herpersonal ethos. A writers personal ethos is the lens through which she views theworld and the manner in which she projects this view to her reader. The writersvoice is of course extremely significant to the personal ethos of the piece. Thewords of the people about whom the author writes also help to create itsmessage.In Meatless Days, Suleris quotes people in a style that is uniquely her own; somuch her own in fact that she often seems to be feeding her own eloquent wordsright into the characters mouths. In "Goodbye to the Greatness of Tom," shequotes what her former boyfriend supposedly said to her once in sadness: "I amsick, he said in self remorse when he last spoke to me. It clutches at my heartand does not let me move, he wailed; It puts me out of pulse and frightens me(89). It can be safely assumed that her boyfriend, in a moment of intenseemotion, did not speak so poetically and explain himself in symbols. It is alsosafe to assume that when her mother expressed her worry about her biracialchildren she did not wonder to herself, as Suleri tells us: "What will happen tothese pieces of yourself‹you, and yet not you‹when you dispatch them into theworld? Have you made sufficient provision for their extraordinary shadows?"(161). Although it is apparent that Suleri gives us her own lyrical interpretation ofother peoples words, the constant weaving of her own voice throughout everyaspect of her story is enormously effective in creating the personal ethos ofMeatless Days. The book is a memoir and as such we look to be taken toSuleris world as she sees it. By shaping the characters words into a voice that ismore her own, she creates a world held together with the majesty of her ownprose. The fluidity of her voice as narrator is never broken, not even broken inthe words of other people.It goes with out saying that Suleri, McPhee, and Didion are all masters of prose.Credibility and personal ethos in the nonfiction piece can be helped by detailedinformation, subtlety in employing judgment, and well placed quotations, but whatties any great piece together, any piece that makes you quiet with inspiration,twinge with recognition or shiver with emotion, is the writers ability to createbrilliantly crafted words.
Suleris greatest strength in Meatless Days is her flair for description. Her bookfocuses a great deal on Pakistan, a land most readers have never seen, thus herability to create striking visual images is at the heart of the book. When writingabout her trip back to Pakistan to run away from pain in her life Suleri silencesthe reader with the grandeur of her description:I went in search of another cure from him, back to the Himalayas of mychildhood, the winsome gullies that climb up the hills beyond the more standardattractions of Murree-a mere hill station of a place, with its mall, its restaurants,and its jostle. In this short description of a hill side, we can truly envision the mountain with "itswinsome gullies", a sweet haven from the bustle of the city below. Each of herchapters are infused with awe-inspiring descriptions which make the world ofPakistan come alive to the reader. Upon finishing Meatless Days, a silenceimmediately came to me. I knew that if I were to once again crack open the nowwrinkled pages, I would immediately be taken back to Suleris intensely visualworld, to the colorful streets of Pakistan, the dusty and uncertain roads of herchildhood, or to the cold sidewalks of New Haven.Meatless Days is a jewel of a book, full of emotion and astounding insight. SaraSuleri is a master writer, who creates a warm and effective personal ethos anddevelops a bond of trust with the reader. There is clear technique and skillinvolved in nonfiction writing, and just as a blacksmith must learn the tricks andsteps to shaping metal, writers too have steps to follow in their craft.To read Meatless Days is exhausting. Not because the book is boring by anystretch of the mind, but because Suleri writes so effectively that the reader feelstransported to her world. We are involved in the arguments with her father,emotionally wrenched by the death of her sister, and touched beyond words bythe enduring love of a family that cannot be together. Sara Suleri must havetirelessly studied the techniques and methods used by remarkable nonfictionwriters, for her implementation of their craft in Meatless Days is breathtaking.Works CitedSuleri, Sara. Meatless Days. The University of Chicago Press, 1991.McPhee, John. The Crofter and the Laird. Farrar,Straus, and Giroux, 1998.Didion, Joan.The White Album. Farrar,Straus, and Giroux, 1990.Fitzerald, F.Scott.The Great Gatsby. Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1995.